Wales clash offers first glance at Ireland plan
Published 04/08/2015 | 02:30
There's something not quite right about rugby in August, even if the weather is playing ball by going autumnal early.
On Saturday, Ireland take their first tangible step towards what they hope will be World Cup glory beneath the closed roof at the Millennium Stadium where they take on Wales away from the prying eyes of the nation who will have to make do with radio coverage and highlights.
Remarkably, the clash will not be broadcast live on Irish television with fans who don't have tickets to the 74,000 sell-out needing to find a BBC Wales feed to get a look at how Joe Schmidt's charges are shaping up after six weeks of pre-season training.
That the WRU managed to shift all of their tickets is impressive, especially given the home fans are unlikely to see a host of their team's front-liners take the field.
Indications are that the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb, Sam Warburton, Alun-Wyn Jones and Gethin Jenkins won't be involved, while George North was confirmed as an absentee yesterday.
Given Schmidt had a phone conversation with Warren Gatland - who names his side today - last week to confirm that the roof will be closed on Saturday, it is conceivable that he might follow suit and field a mix-and-match team to have a look at options.
He will first cut a small number of players from his panel this week, with the front-row, back-row and back-three players most at risk and the likes of Dave Kilcoyne, Jack Conan, Rob Herring and Simon Zebo likely to be looking over their shoulders.
Then, he will name his first team of 2015/'16 on Thursday and could be tempted to have a look at some alternative options, with the likes of Leinster's Noel Reid - said to be impressing in training - potentially being offered a chance to shine.
The coach gave an interview over the weekend in which he said he was relishing the time afforded to him by the World Cup to work on Ireland's game plan and add to strings to his team's bow outside of the normally tight Test windows.
The suggestion is that we may see an increase in offloads when the opportunities present themselves, while the coach will also look to build in some of his trademark 'strike-plays' to be dusted off at a later date.
Whether we will see evidence of that on Saturday remains to be seen given the need to keep powder dry for the main event.
Despite the IRFU tag-line accompanying their marketing around the two home games this month, these are just warm-up matches and nobody will care about the result when Ireland return to Cardiff on September 19 to begin their campaign against Canada.
There is no harm in this additional visit to a full Millennium Stadium either, especially given the indications that the roof will be closed when Ireland meet France in the Welsh capital for their pivotal pool match on October 11. It would be no surprise to learn that the preparation for that key fixture has already banked at Carton House and the squad will be able to take out their play-sheets in the week before having done their preparation a la New Zealand in 2013.
Even so, there are seven matches to come before that all-important clash and a lot can happen.
The goal for all of the players is primarily to stay safe while also impressing enough to make the plane.
The next month will be especially stressful if you're a winger, full-back, second-row and back-row and much of the scrutiny will rest on those positions in the coming weeks as Schmidt does the maths and attempts to cover his bases while selecting the strongest possible squad for the endurance test ahead.
Then, there is the conundrum of the walking wounded; particularly Cian Healy who, despite the coach's positive soundings at the weekend, remains the biggest doubt.
The fixture list is on his side, however, given Ireland kick off against Canada and Romania and don't play their biggest Pool D game until last.
So, Schmidt will be wary of over-exposing Jack McGrath given his importance, while he will hope to get Michael Bent as much time on the field as possible as the New Zealand-born prop prepares for an international renaissance as his versatility pushes him firmly into contention.
Today, Ireland hold the first press event of the season, while an injury update should provide some clarity for the week ahead.
The GAA season may still be in full flow and the new Premier League campaign about to kick off, but the World Cup countdown has begun to quicken.